WASHINGTON — With the Bushes preparing to stand down from a quarter century in top elected offices, a frenzied competition has erupted in the Republican Party over who will inherit a fundraising and vote-getting machine built by the family over the years into one of the most valuable assets in modern politics.
At stake is access to an elaborate national network of corporate givers, campaign strategists and grass-roots volunteers who have repeatedly propelled the Bushes to victory -- a network that could now give a new contender the inside track to winning the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination.
The leading potential heirs to that political fortune so far are Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a onetime rival to the current President Bush and presumed front-runner for the nomination, and, a bit surprisingly, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has emerged as a top-tier contender by wooing social conservatives considered crucial in the early primary contests.
Adding to the drama, a sibling divide appears to be emerging among aides closest to President Bush and his brother, outgoing Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Some key members of Gov. Bush's tight-knit inner circle have signed up to help Romney, while several of President Bush's senior strategists have gone to McCain. They include the media advisor and political director for the president's 2004 campaign.
The fight for the Bush family mantle demonstrates that, even after the plunge in the president's popularity and the GOP's thumping in the midterm election, the family network remains the single most powerful force in Republican Party politics.
It is a machine born four decades ago, when Barbara and George H.W. Bush moved to Texas and began to build a political life -- meticulously filling index cards with names of possible supporters and dutifully sending out Christmas greetings each year. Far from that simple, mid-20th century approach, today's GOP relies on a broad database of backers across the country whose relationships have been nurtured by generations of Bushes.
From the family's West Texas oil fortunes and Wall Street connections half a century ago, the network has grown to include the big-money fundraisers, dubbed "pioneers" and "rangers," who helped George W. Bush raise more than $500 million for his two presidential campaigns.
It also includes Bush family loyalists such as Karl Rove, who have, over the last six years, presided over the GOP's creation of the most exhaustive voter-targeting operation available, an infrastructure that relies on databases of voter names and the enthusiasm of ground-level workers and volunteers.
"The Bush name is the gold standard in Republican primaries," said Mark McKinnon, former media advisor to President Bush, who is now working with McCain. Hiring staffers viewed as close to the family, he said, "helps confer some credibility and experience or acceptability."
While the 2008 hopefuls are vying for the Bush family's fundraising and field organizing network, a more complex question is whether they want to be seen as inheriting the Bush political ideology. Widely criticized for starting the Iraq war and running large budget deficits, President Bush's brand of conservatism is in disfavor.
Jeb Bush, on the other hand, is adored by religious conservatives for his role in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case and for his support for school choice in Florida. He is praised by economic conservatives for cutting millions in taxes and backing efforts to privatize some government services. While the president's approval ratings hover in the 30s or low 40s, Florida polls show that Gov. Bush's ratings are into the 60s, and several party strategists have put Jeb Bush's name forward as a potential nominee for vice president in 2008.
Officially, both Jeb and George W. Bush are neutral in the presidential race. As the leader of his political party, the president traditionally sits out the primary contests. Gov. Bush so far is following suit -- though he has told former aides that he and Romney are similar in ideology and governing style.
Rove, President Bush's senior political advisor, also has not taken sides in the 2008 race, though he may be eager to get involved in order to show that the GOP defeats this year do not signal the end of his vision of long-term Republican dominance.
The overt indicators of jockeying for the Bush political assets have come in a series of announcements from the McCain and Romney camps, boasting of support from national- and state-level supporters with a variety of Bush family ties.
Other signs have been more subtle. A ceremony last week in the Florida State House, honoring Jeb Bush's service as governor, included a 15-minute presentation featuring images of the governor with Romney and another potential 2008 contender, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. One photo depicted Romney and Jeb Bush with broad grins, standing together in Romney's Boston office.